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2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Familiar yet unexpectedly poignant and heartwarming, this culinary-themed drama is the year's best Lunar New Year offering, 3 February 2017

'Cook Up A Storm' may be arriving later than its peers, but it is easily the most satisfying CNY movie we've seen this year. As much as it may be about the rivalry between the Cantonese street cook Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse) and the French-trained Michelin-starred chef Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa), this gastronomic-themed drama is more compellingly about Sky and his father Mountain Ko (Anthony Wong), the latter an internationally recognized Chinese chef who had left his son in the care of his buddy Uncle Seven (Ge You) two decades ago in order to pursue his culinary ambitions worldwide. It isn't hard to guess that the father-son estrangement is where the narrative ultimately leads to (meaning therefore that the supposed enmity between Sky and Paul is no more than a red herring), but that doesn't diminish the poignance of their eventual reconciliation, which is also what makes the movie surprisingly pleasing.

As formula would have it, the conflicts here between the respective pair of rivals are resolved through cooking competitions. Underlining that between Sky and Paul is the threat an obnoxious land developer Chairman Li (Wang Tai Li) brandishes about taking back the humble diner Seven if the former loses the International Chef Challenge Competition – although the fact that Chairman Li owns the fine dining restaurant where Paul is head chef at makes the bargain an unfair one to begin with. Incidentally, their clash is also cast as one between tradition and modernity – not only because Seven and the Spring Avenue neighbourhood where it is located are but the only historical vestiges left in the middle of gleaming skyscrapers, but also because of Paul's frequent refrain that Chinese cuisine had stagnated through the centuries. Likewise, the enmity between Sky and Mountain also culminates in a culinary showdown, albeit in a more prestigious World Supreme Chef Competition at Macau's glittering Studio City Event Centre.

Yet even though the presentation is familiar, the flavours remain just as delightful. It's no secret that the premise is inspired by Nicholas Tse's cooking show 'Chef Nic', and just as that successful food travelogue, the sight of watching professional chefs at work on their craft is truly one to behold. Just as delectable is the showcase of East and West cuisine – the former presented here with a beauty and elegance rarely seen, and the latter exotic and fascinating in and of itself. The filmmakers have here taken to heart an axiom which the sagely Seven imparts – that the mark of a truly successful chef is his or her ability to create a dish that can carry its flavours from the tongue to the heart. Oh yes, more than the tantalizing sight of food is the unexpectedly moving reunion between the father-son pair here, which is guaranteed to leave you misty-eyed.

That these characters are played by Nicholas Tse and Anthony Wong also makes their on screen relationship even more compelling, the latter in particular injecting gravitas into a supporting role that could have ended up as mere caricature in the hands of a lesser actor. Not forgetting of course the wonderful Ge You, whose presence alone brings class and dignity to an underwritten part that could have been better developed to illustrate the surrogate relationship between Sky and Seven. Indeed, some of the most memorable scenes are constructed between and around these veterans as they trade barbs and jibes at one another, leaving the rest of the performers either shrill (such as Jim Chim's sycophantic right-hand man to Chairman Li) or just bland (such as Seven's restaurant manager Uni (Tiffany Tang) and Paul's girlfriend cum culinary associate Mayo (Bai Bing)).

Truth be told, 'Cook Up A Storm' serves up a recipe that local viewers will no doubt recognize from past CNY offerings such as 'Let's Eat!' and Stephen Chow's classic 'God of Cookery'. But there is every intention on director Raymond Yip and his writer Manfred Wong's part for their latest to be comfort food over the CNY holiday, just like the familiar but nevertheless joyous dishes we often partake over reunion dinners and with the crucial ingredient of family togetherness. In that regard, there is much reason to embrace the joy, warmth and exuberance of this familiar yet heartwarming movie – and like we said at the start, it may have arrived later than its peers, but this is also easily the most enjoyable Spring Festival movie this year.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Familiar yet unexpectedly poignant and heartwarming, this culinary-themed drama is the year's best Lunar New Year offering, 3 February 2017

'Cook Up A Storm' may be arriving later than its peers, but it is easily the most satisfying CNY movie we've seen this year. As much as it may be about the rivalry between the Cantonese street cook Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse) and the French-trained Michelin-starred chef Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa), this gastronomic-themed drama is more compellingly about Sky and his father Mountain Ko (Anthony Wong), the latter an internationally recognized Chinese chef who had left his son in the care of his buddy Uncle Seven (Ge You) two decades ago in order to pursue his culinary ambitions worldwide. It isn't hard to guess that the father-son estrangement is where the narrative ultimately leads to (meaning therefore that the supposed enmity between Sky and Paul is no more than a red herring), but that doesn't diminish the poignance of their eventual reconciliation, which is also what makes the movie surprisingly pleasing.

As formula would have it, the conflicts here between the respective pair of rivals are resolved through cooking competitions. Underlining that between Sky and Paul is the threat an obnoxious land developer Chairman Li (Wang Tai Li) brandishes about taking back the humble diner Seven if the former loses the International Chef Challenge Competition – although the fact that Chairman Li owns the fine dining restaurant where Paul is head chef at makes the bargain an unfair one to begin with. Incidentally, their clash is also cast as one between tradition and modernity – not only because Seven and the Spring Avenue neighbourhood where it is located are but the only historical vestiges left in the middle of gleaming skyscrapers, but also because of Paul's frequent refrain that Chinese cuisine had stagnated through the centuries. Likewise, the enmity between Sky and Mountain also culminates in a culinary showdown, albeit in a more prestigious World Supreme Chef Competition at Macau's glittering Studio City Event Centre.

Yet even though the presentation is familiar, the flavours remain just as delightful. It's no secret that the premise is inspired by Nicholas Tse's cooking show 'Chef Nic', and just as that successful food travelogue, the sight of watching professional chefs at work on their craft is truly one to behold. Just as delectable is the showcase of East and West cuisine – the former presented here with a beauty and elegance rarely seen, and the latter exotic and fascinating in and of itself. The filmmakers have here taken to heart an axiom which the sagely Seven imparts – that the mark of a truly successful chef is his or her ability to create a dish that can carry its flavours from the tongue to the heart. Oh yes, more than the tantalizing sight of food is the unexpectedly moving reunion between the father-son pair here, which is guaranteed to leave you misty-eyed.

That these characters are played by Nicholas Tse and Anthony Wong also makes their on screen relationship even more compelling, the latter in particular injecting gravitas into a supporting role that could have ended up as mere caricature in the hands of a lesser actor. Not forgetting of course the wonderful Ge You, whose presence alone brings class and dignity to an underwritten part that could have been better developed to illustrate the surrogate relationship between Sky and Seven. Indeed, some of the most memorable scenes are constructed between and around these veterans as they trade barbs and jibes at one another, leaving the rest of the performers either shrill (such as Jim Chim's sycophantic right-hand man to Chairman Li) or just bland (such as Seven's restaurant manager Uni (Tiffany Tang) and Paul's girlfriend cum culinary associate Mayo (Bai Bing)).

Truth be told, 'Cook Up A Storm' serves up a recipe that local viewers will no doubt recognize from past CNY offerings such as 'Let's Eat!' and Stephen Chow's classic 'God of Cookery'. But there is every intention on director Raymond Yip and his writer Manfred Wong's part for their latest to be comfort food over the CNY holiday, just like the familiar but nevertheless joyous dishes we often partake over reunion dinners and with the crucial ingredient of family togetherness. In that regard, there is much reason to embrace the joy, warmth and exuberance of this familiar yet heartwarming movie – and like we said at the start, it may have arrived later than its peers, but this is also easily the most enjoyable Spring Festival movie this year.

18 out of 31 people found the following review useful:
Witless, charmless and ultimately pointless, this sequel is notable only for Tsui Hark's visual excesses as compensation for its sheer emptiness, 28 January 2017
4/10

Just by the fact that 'Journey to the West 2 (JTTW2): The Demons Strike Back' represents the first-ever collaboration between Hong Kong cinema icons Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark should make you excited about this sequel to Chow's 2013 fantasy comedy, which concluded with the monk Tang Sanzang embark on the titular journey to retrieve the Buddhist sutras that the classic source material is best known for. Whereas Zhang Wen played the timid and tentative Tang in the earlier movie, it is former Exo band member Kris Wu who has been cast here; ditto, not Huang Bo or Chen Bing Qiang or Lee Sheung Ching reprise their roles as Tang's companions Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy respectively, which are now played by Hark's latest muse Lin Gengxin, Yang Yiwei and Mengke Bateer – and just for the record, only the earlier movie's Shu Qi returns to cameo as Miss Duan, a fellow demon exerciser whom Tang admitted being in love with only upon her accidental death at Monkey King's hands. Oh yes, the lack of continuity is somewhat puzzling, considering how it has only been four years since and the story here follows from the earlier movie.

Yet it becomes distinctly clear during the 109-minute movie which feels like it goes on for twice as long that the much touted Chow-Hark collaboration here is really just a gimmick, as well that the almost total change in cast from the original represents not just the cash- grab intentions of this sequel but also the importance – or lack thereof – which both Chow in his capacity as writer cum producer and Hark in his as director have placed on artistic considerations. Indeed, 'JTTW2: The Demons Strike Back' is a witless, charmless and pointless, whose search for its own story is even more obvious than Tang's search for the sutras and which tries copiously to use CGI to compensate for its glaring absences. Put it simply, this is an utter disappointment, marking one of the most humourless Chow comedies we've seen and an awful misstep for the 66-year-old Tsui on a second-wave of his illustrious but uneven directorial oeuvre following 'Detective Dee' and 'The Taking of Tiger Mountain'.

First and fundamentally, there is no story here, meandering from a travelling circus where Tang's attempt to show the villagers that he and his disciples are capable of magic results in total destruction of the humble village, then to an isolated compound in the woods where a female spider demon and her consorts have killed its inhabitants and are waiting to devour Tang, and lastly to a carnival-like kingdom in India where a Minister (Yao Chen) and her servile king (Bao Bei'er) bait Tang with a white-boned spirit Felicity (Jelly Lin from 'The Mermaid'). Connecting the three acts is supposedly the rekindled resentment between Tang and Monkey King, the former still alternately crushed and angry over the death of Miss Duan and the latter boiling over the former's hold over him. And yet, the narrative is anything but character-driven, chiefly because Chow doesn't develop their conflict to be anywhere near compelling or resolve it in any convincing, let alone poignant, way.

The rest really is either distraction or filler. How else would you describe Pigsy's one-note lecherous tendencies, which sees him turn into a handsome scholarly type in front of female beauty? Or Sandy's poisoning at the hands of one of the spider demons, which causes him to turn into a giant mucus-blowing fish similar to his introduction at the start of the first movie? Pigsy and Sandy add little to the dynamic between Tang and Monkey King, used here only as comic relief. The same can be said of the demons that they encounter along their way, the eight-legged ones leading to a battle that briefly alludes to Tang's humanism versus Monkey King's violence and goes no further and the subsequent no more than an excuse for Tsui to flex his CGI muscles to conjure up an epic showdown in the middle of a crashing ocean with a giant rock monkey, numerous false Buddhas and an immortal gold vulture.

Had your measure of entertainment been premised on CGI, you would probably be squealing delightfully. Since his 'Legend of Zu' days, Tsui has loved creating fantasy worlds with the use of technology, and its advancements have only led him to think bigger. Yet there is only so much that Tsui as a visual magician can do to salvage a movie which had very little to begin with, which we suspect was the reason why Chow decided to get someone else to do the directing (rather than bear the ignominy alone); and in turn, Tsui compensates and over-compensates with his excesses, which ultimately only underscores how empty and meaningless this whole affair is.

It is even more inexcusable seeing as how Chow is intimately familiar with the 'Journey to the West' tales coming off his other revisionist telling 'A Chinese Odyssey' in the 90s. There are hardly any bits of humour here, and even Chow's signature tricks (such as characters calling each other '扑街') become exhaustive and pandering. The cast has hardly any chemistry, especially inexcusable seeing as how Chow has always stressed finding the right actors (even those with no prior experience, like Kitty Zhang or Jelly Lin) in his movies. And there is no purpose here, given how Tang is no closer to retrieving his scriptures at the end of it and how Tang and Monkey King seem to have found closure to their differences like in the last movie. The fact that this had been a promising Chow-Tsui collaboration makes watching 'JTTW2: The Demons Strike Back' even more dispiriting, so just avoid this journey at all costs and go find somewhere else to walk, just anywhere else really.

Take 2 (2017)
Struggling to balance comedy with drama, 'Take 2' ultimately comes off more the former than the latter, but with enough humour, wit and scrappy charm to keep you entertained, 26 January 2017
6/10

'Take 2' weaves a story of four ex-cons struggling to reintegrate into society – Ryan Lian's Tiger is a former gangster who took the rap for his boss Blackie (Henry Thia); Wang Lei's Mad Dog is a serial criminal who has apparently been convicted of every single offence in the Penal Code except for 'unnatural sex'; Gadrick Chen's Panther was betrayed by his partner during a robbery attempt; while Maxi Lim's Jian Ren was a soon-to-be groom convicted of sex with an underage prostitute during his bachelor's night party – and Tiger's voice-over at the beginning sums up their collective willingness to turn over a new leaf following their most recent prison stints. It was just last year that K. Rajagopal's 'A Yellow Bird' dwelt on similar themes, and slightly more than a decade ago that Jack Neo had done likewise with 'One More Chance', but 'Take 2' is intended less as a serious drama on new beginnings and second chances than as a light-hearted dramedy with the same subject matter for the Chinese New Year season.

Co-written with his 'Ah Boys to Men' director Neo, Ivan Ho (who also makes his directorial debut here) himself struggles to strike the right balance between humour and seriousness, exacerbated by the blatant repetition of casting a cross-dressing Dennis Chew in a variety of bit roles. There is Dennis Chew as an egotistical 'auntie' whose car Panther had leased for use as a private taxi; there is Dennis Chew as the owner of a tuition centre who offers Jian Ren a teaching position without knowing of his past conviction; there is Dennis Chew as the female boss of a 'bak chor mee' stall whose quarrel with Mad Dog goes viral; and there is Dennis Chew as a beggar who bursts into church with face shrouded in shadow looking like Jesus Christ. As much as Chew doesn't attempt to steal the limelight in each one of these scenes, his presence alone ultimately distracts from the intended message of the stigmatization that these ex-cons face while trying to get back on their feet, even at times trivializing their very predicaments.

Among the quartet, only Tiger emerges as a fully enough formed character that we come to empathise with, especially as he tries in vain to get through to his estranged teenage son Guang (newcomer Shawn Ho) who appears to be following in his younger day's footsteps. Whereas, Panther and Mad Dog's presence seem to go not much further than as comic sidekicks, and Jian Ren is (well) almost completely sidelined. It should also come as no surprise that, among them, Lian's performance is easily the most gripping, injecting some much-needed gravitas into a film that would otherwise come off too lightweight for its own good. Graduating from his scene-stealing supporting part in Neo's epic period drama 'Long Long Time Ago' into the lead role here, Lian also holds his own against veteran actor Chen Tianwen, who sheds his 'Mr Unbelievable' persona for a truly menacing villainous part named Di Tie with his own score to settle with Tiger.

Oh yes, as formula would have it, Di Tie represents the past that comes back to haunt our four flawed heroes just as they are about to make a breakthrough with a new business venture that combines Tiger's cooking talent with Jian Ren's excellent Maths teaching skills and Panther's entrepreneurial instincts. Bearing the film's titular name, the three-in-one establishment offers tuition services for kids with food and beverage options and massage services for their waiting parents. And yet, that promising restart threatens to be derailed by Di Tie, who not only exploits Mad Dog (who owes him money he borrowed to feed his gambling habit) to spike the establishment's water on its opening day but also Guang to frame his father for drug possession, thus culminating in a showdown at a warehouse pier that you've probably seen the trailers teased.

Whereas the earlier two acts alternated between comedy and drama, the last adds action into the mix – what with Mad Dog dusting off his former 'choppers' inscribed with his former nickname 'Geylang Mad Dog' (prompting one of the genuinely funny quips from Blackie that he had ORD-ed from gangster-hood without 'returning his arms') and Panther packing a fire extinguisher, a washing basin, a pair of nanchucks and rope to stage an ambush on MRT and his gang. The ensuing mishmash is as discordant as it sounds, vacillating between melodramatic scenes of Tiger fending off MRT's brutal attack for the sake of Guang and amusing scenes of nerdy Jian Ren transforming into a 'nanchucks' expert as well as Panther channeling his inner Bruce Lee. And yet, there is undeniably a scrappy charm to the proceedings, driven by the chemistry between Lian, Wang and Chen that translates into a palpable sense of brotherhood between their characters on screen.

That 'Take 2' proves to be somewhat rough around the edges is perhaps to be expected, given how this is only Ho's maiden outing behind the camera. His background as a writer no doubt makes his debut feature a lot more narratively coherent than some of Neo's earlier works, but as a director, Ho seems to have adopted his mentor's sitcom-ish style despite trying to infuse a more urbane flair with the use of Latin tunes like Gabriel Saientz's 'Te Quiero'. As far as inspiring its audience to give ex-cons in society a 'take two', 'Take 2' isn't nearly as moving or poignant as it needs to be; but as comedy fare for the Chinese New Year season, there is enough humour, wit and even sheer nuttiness to keep you engaged, if not entertained. Just as how it is not realistic for ex- cons to keep their old ways while starting over, 'Take 2' cannot be both goofy and compelling at the same time, so it is no surprise that it ultimately comes off more of the former and much less of the latter.

Split (2016/IX)
3 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
Great weaving of compelling story arcs and masterful performances by all the main actors makes Split a welcome sophomore return effort by Shyamalan, 19 January 2017
8/10

If you've seen the trailer, you'll know the surprisingly clear premise of Split - the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan. A mysterious man kidnaps three girls and traps them in an unknown location. As they struggle to escape, it would seem that he has accomplices - except it turns out, "they" are him. It's all him.

James McAvoy is Kevin, the kidnapper who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). We start the film when he is controlled by the stern and OCD-inflicted "Dennis", kidnapping Casey (Anya Taylor- Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) for a mysterious reason, with his companion personalities, "Ms Patricia" and "Hedwig". Together, they are considered "the Horde"; three of twenty-three personalities taking turns to be "in the light" inside Kevin. This only turns more disturbing, as words like "The Beast" and "sacred food" are whispered by the trio, and the girls, naturally panic-stricken, work towards finding their way out of their jail.

It would seem that thirteen is a lucky number for Shyamalan. The 2015 The Visit was his return to form after a string of embarrassing work. He's always been a good explorer, asking what-ifs that turn subject matter on their heads, ending them with his signature plot twists. After realising this became his Achilles Heel, he has reinvented himself with a refreshed formula, and Split would reinforce that he is succeeding.

With his latest film, he comes at you three ways - the obvious plot of the girls being abducted by a trio of cultish personas that wants to somehow use them to release "the beast". The second is Casey's story, that runs parallel in the form of flashbacks, slowly unfurling the reason behind this youth's unusual behaviour. This explains not only her aloof and uncooperative nature, but also her worldly and calculated maneuvers, relative to the other two girls who are more impulsive.

It is the last that rattles the most, and it lies in the hands of both slayer and savior - the beast's doctrine that "those who have not suffered are impure" and Kevin's therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who theorised that those suffering from DID are not lesser human beings with damaged minds, but evolved greater beings, with sometimes supernatural traits. Weaving these three arcs seamlessly into Split is a testament to Shyamalan's persistent skill.

McAvoy is a notable actor, with enough fluidity to make for a fascinating Kevin. As "Dennis", he is sombre and uptight, crunching brows and fidgeting with object placements. "Ms. Patricia" comes along and he turns poised and deliberate, with arched eyebrows and tightened lips, holding back her delicious secrets. "Hedwig" is the attention-seeking nine-year-old, who we slowly find out has managed to steal "the light" from "Barry" - the usual benign controller of Kevin.

McAvoy does an admirable job, shifting nuances between the personas. But maybe his recent appearances as the bald Charles Xavier has grown too ingrained, and Kevin's transformations, though laudable, are not as defined as they should be. And though interesting to watch, and sometimes terrifying to decipher (as to who's in charge), the mental patient he plays does feel cliché and a bit of a caricature. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix (Shyamalan's original choice) would have fared better? Unfortunately, we'll never know.

Though the early scenes of escape were tense and exciting, the ones with Dr. Fletcher made for some of the most engaging watch. Although therapists are roles that tend to be relegated to help with exposition, Fletcher serves to be an equal and compassionate player in the hide-and-seek game, where she susses out who the controller might be. As she figures out that her theory might be more terrifying true than she expected, the audience follows her through her mortification.

Anna Taylor-Joy was a riveting victim. Her startling fragility and angst as Casey gives the movie its most moving moments. Her quick- thinking and measured moves reveals a survivor honed by the past, and as we get fed her history, we become thankful for it, and yet in the most conflicted of ways. Her ending scene and that withering look has us knowing that she's in for more terrifying stories to run from, and proves to be the most disturbing takeaway of all.

Shyamalan remains a great storyteller, reinforcing the main plot with small vignettes of charm and wit. In the scenes where "Dennis" masquerades as "Barry", he makes himself overly effete, and over- populates his speech with fashion trivia, when "Barry" was nothing like that, revealing stereotypes even among personas. In another snippet, as Fletcher shares her theory with her elderly neighbour, and calls her patients superior human beings, the old lady rejects her proposal, calling it rubbish, before picking up her phone having succumbed to an infomercial.

Split is so many things, and served up by the skillful editing of Luke Clarrocchi and the magnificently atmospheric score by West Dylan Thordson which swings overhead like a metallic guillotine, explores and represents this old adage the best - whatever doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

5 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Over-the-top action, unapologetically cheesy dialogue and a barely serviceable story, this reboot of 'xXx' is comfort food for action movie junkies, 19 January 2017
6/10

No one had asked for a sequel to 'xXx: State of the Union', but given the phenomenal success in rebooting the 'Fast and Furious' series, this modest Vin Diesel franchise has been dusted off the shelves for a third instalment. If you don't already know, the somewhat dubious-sounding title is really the name of a National Security Agency's covert-spy programme run by one burn-scarred Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), whose maiden recruit was the thrill-seeking extreme sports enthusiast Xander Cage and counts among its legacy ex-con Darius Stone (Ice Cube). As Augustus would have you and Brazilian pro-footballer Neymar know in his wry tongue- in-cheek opening, the 'Triple X' programme has been very much alive in the decade since Ice Cube's Stone took over Vin Diesel's Cage for the underwhelming follow-up back in 2005.

Before Santos manages to tell Augustus if he wants into 'Triple X', a satellite from space comes crashing down on them, brought down by a device known as 'Pandora's Box' that can be used to turn satellites into missiles. Ah, what perfect excuse to lure Xander back from self-imposed exile in the Dominican Republic, which forms the backdrop for an over-the-top introduction that sees him ski down a tall broadcasting tower and skateboard his way through bendy mountain roads with a transformer in order to give the humble local folks free football coverage. The obligatory Government suit here is Toni Collette's humorless Jane Marke, who tracks him down and hands him an assignment to track down a team of four equally adrenaline- pumped (and therefore deemed highly dangerous) terrorists who have stolen the aforementioned device from right under her nose at the CIA's New York City office.

Given that it is Donnie Yen's Xiang who breaks into the said security by leaping off an adjacent building and through the facility's glass roof, 'xXx: Return of Xander Cage' teases a potential showdown between Vin Diesel and series newcomer Donnie Yen – which we'd be honest was as exciting as waiting for the one-on-one between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson in 'Fast and Furious 5'. Yet, for the benefit of those harbouring similar expectations, that promise is never quite fulfilled, not least because of a mid-act twist by writer F. Scott Franzier that effectively takes the sting out of their supposed rivalry. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that neither Cage's other team members – sharpshooter Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), professional 'demolition' driver Tennyson (Rory McCann), IT expert and deejay Nicks Zhou (Kris Wu) – nor Xiang's – Serena Unger (Deepika Padukone), Hawk (Michael Bisping) and Talon (Tony Jaa) – end up being memorably at odds with one another.

Oh yes, if you haven't already guessed, this instalment is really a thinly disguised reboot of the franchise as an ensemble – and so much like how Diesel's Dominic Toretto was the de-facto leader of the team in the more recent 'Fast and Furious' additions, his Xander Cage assumes a similar role rallying his 'Triple X' cohorts together against a bunch of hawkish insurgents within the US Government who want the device as their own 'nuclear football'. If their rapport isn't quite as infectious, it is partly because the supporting cast isn't quite as charismatic in their own right as that in 'Fast and Furious' (there's no one here that even comes close to the sheer comic relief of Tyrese Gibson and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges) and partly because there is hardly enough narrative space for each side character to define his or her own personality. As it is, most of the attention is spent developing the pseudo tension between Cage and Xiang and the genuine sexual tension between Cage and Serena.

Not that each does not offer up its own unique pleasures – especially during the final act, Diesel and Yen have great rapport between them, which to fans of the latter (us included) is reassurance that he is not simply some token big-name Asian inclusion; in fact, it is Yen's lightning-quick gongfu moves (marred by some hyperactive editing) that steals the spotlight from Diesel's showy but ultimately unrealistic daredevil stunts. Padukone's fans too can rest easy; not only is the actress never asked to justify for speaking in her native English accent, she pretty much holds her own next to Diesel when it comes to butt-kicking. On the other hand, Jaa is lost amidst the noise and fury, and even more so than in 'Furious 7' gets a thankless bit role with his hair dyed blond and little more than a cheeky demeanor to show for. It should also be said that Ice Cube's cameo is milked for as much as it is worth, showing up at a critical moment that will surely have you cheering.

And indeed, there is no reason you should expect 'xXx: Return of Xander Cage' to be any more than big, loud and dumb fun – nor for that matter does it have any ambition to be anything else but. The stunts are intentionally ridiculous – who knew motorbikes could transform into jet skis on water and survive after being completely submerged – and excessive, conceived and performed with an utter disregard for physics or simple commonsense logic. The lines are unapologetically cheesy – 'I'm XXX,' says Cage when asked if he is a rebel or a tyrant – and with every pun intended – 'Under cover,' Cage answers when asked to describe his method of bedding a posse of women to uncover the identities of Xiang and his crew. Last but not least, the story is unashamedly shallow and derivative. Yet insofar as being fast food for the action movie crowd, this is as Gibbons describes – 'kicks some ass, gets the girls, and looks dope while doing it'.

8 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
Too much slapstick and too little character work turns this celebration of wartime heroism into a farcical war comedy - and renders Jackie Chan largely inconsequential, 23 December 2016
6/10

If you've seen 'Little Big Soldier' or 'Police Story 2013', you'll know better than to expect Jackie Chan's third collaboration with Mainland filmmaker Ding Sheng to be a martial arts showcase of the former's acrobatic stunts. And sure enough, despite being billed as 'a Jackie Chan action-comedy blockbuster', 'Railroad Tigers' is really an ensemble piece set against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of East China in the early 1940s. Based upon true events, Chan plays a humble railroad worker named Ma Yuan who leads a ragtag team from his village to blow up a critical transportation route across the Hanzhuang bridge for the Japanese to send supplies to their troops at the frontlines.

Once again assuming both writing and directing duties, Ding Sheng keeps the premise appealingly simple. Not content to toil for the invading Japanese in their respective jobs, Ma Yuan and his fellow railroad workers as well as a bunch of other working-class village folk take to robbing them every now and then – indeed, it is in the midst of one such daring midday robbery of a passenger train carrying a group of Japanese soldiers and their pillages that the members of the titular ragtag team are introduced via title cards. An Eighth Route army soldier Daguo (Darren Wang) stumbles into Ma Yuan's humble but cosy village house one night while evading capture by the Japanese, the former recounting how his platoon had tried but failed to detonate the aforementioned bridge. Upon his recovery, Daguo insists on returning to his platoon. Alas, Daguo fails to make it back before being shot by the Japanese, so Ma Yuan decides to assemble the team to complete his assignment – and in so doing, realises their collective hopes of 'doing something big' or '干票大 的'.

Though his previous movies seemed to demonstrate his predilection for character-driven storytelling, Ding Sheng is all out for visual spectacle here, structuring his narrative around a series of extended action sequences– the opening train robbery is an ambitious start that also sets a playful tone, followed by a raid on the armoury warehouse at Shaguo station to procure the explosives needed to blow up the bridge, then a heroic attempt to rescue Ma Yuan and his associate Rui (Jaycee Chan) imprisoned by the Japanese in a square metal cell on board another moving train, and last but not least the loudest, longest and undeniably overblown (pardon the pun) setpiece to hijack a Japanese military transport locomotive intended as the very 'bomb' itself. In between are scenes meant to emphasise the camaraderie between the ragtag team of revolutionaries, arguably too short and too sparse for any individual character – except Ma Yuan and Rui – to make much impression.

That said, 'Railroad Tigers' probably bears the least character work among all of Ding Sheng's movies so far. Ma Yuan's status as leader seems premised solely on his age and paternal instincts, and other than hinting at a slow-burn romance with the village pancake seller Auntie Qin, there is little else that defines him. The same goes for the other railroad workers Rui and Dagui (Ping Sang) as well as the other members of the 'Tigers' – amateur tailor Dahai (Huang Zitao), handywoman Xing'er (Xu Fan) and serial pickpocketer San Laizi (Alan Ng). Because Chan plays Ma Yuan low-key and unassuming, it is former warlord bodyguard Fan Chuan (Wang Kai) who steals his thunder whenever the latter is on screen, putting his sharpshooting skills to good use especially during shootouts with the Japanese. Next to the Tigers, the Japanese are defined by the cocky military police captain Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), his stern no-nonsense female colleague Yuko (Zhang Lanxin) and to a lesser extent the bumbling station master Sakamoto (Kôji Yano). With the sheer number of characters, it is not difficult to see why there is little time to develop any of them, such that each becomes known by and large by his or her relation to the unfolding narrative.

Like we said earlier, the action takes centrestage, interspersed now and then with slapstick gags that do not always hit the mark. Chan's good-natured goofiness is still amusing, but the humour borders on childish at times, and undercuts the build-up of dramatic tension especially during the supposedly tense and dangerous situations. In fact, an extended gag that sees Yamaguchi consume not one but two drugged pancakes prepared by Auntie Qin which causes him fall asleep while the Tigers act to rescue Ma Yuan and Rui as well as turn lecherous against the male deputy station master held for interrogation is downright farcical – besides raising suspicions of the filmmakers' disdain towards the Japanese, it also diminishes the intended display of bravery of the Tigers.

It doesn't matter that 'Railroad Tigers' contains next to none of Jackie Chan's death-defying stunts; in fact, true fans of the martial arts actor should be happy that his films are not solely defined by how high he jumps or how far he leaps. Oh no, Ding Sheng's latest collaboration with Chan is underwhelming because it seems no more than an excuse for the former to live out his childhood fantasies of trains in a big-budget motion picture, disguising his fancies under a purported celebration of the heroism of a group of ordinary civilians displayed in the anti-Japanese war effort. Ironically, his latest film could have benefited with more of the self-seriousness in 'Police Story 2013' (which was accused of being too sombre), instead of letting the often foolish and even self-indulgent humour to dilute the action and drama. Ding's inspiration is also the Hollywood Westerns of trains and train heists, and on that level alone, 'Railroad Tigers' is certainly watchable; but for a Jackie Chan movie, it is undeniably disappointing, not least because Chan doesn't even get to do much beyond appearing next to his son and/or a whole bunch of other Mainland actors.

9 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
As much homage as it is reinvention, Derek Yee's update of his 1977 'Death Duel' is 'wuxia' cinema at its best, 12 December 2016
8/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If 'Sword Master' seems an odd entry into Derek Yee's filmography in light of his recent gritty urban dramas like 'One Night in Mongkok', 'Protégé' and 'Shinjuku Incident', it is really a return to his 'wuxia' roots. Together with his producer and co-screenwriter Tsui Hark, Yee plots his modern-day update of the 1977 classic Shaw Brothers film 'Death Duel' first from the perspective of Yen Shih-san (Peter Ho), who gets the first stylised CGI-heavy swordsfight of the movie on a snowy stone bridge duelling with a vengeful but poorly matched opponent Gao looking for revenge for his second brother. Yen eventually kills his opponent, but is told by onlookers that he cannot claim to be the greatest swordsman unless he prevails over someone known as Third Master. And so he sets out on that very quest, which brings him to the Supreme Sword Manor where the Third Master's Hsieh Clan reside. It is there he meets the Manor's Lord and learns that the Third Master has been dead for 37 days, a news he receives with disbelief and uncontrolled rage. Turns out Yen is afflicted with an incurable illness, and his impending death coupled with a loss of purpose leaves him content to live his remaining days in obscurity at a graveyard outside Bitter Sea Town.

Without any further context at this point, the narrative shifts to a drunk man who stumbles into a brothel claiming to be rich but is only found to be penniless by its Madam after overstaying five days. And so he agrees to pay his dues by working as their errand boy named Ah Chi (Lin Gengxin), despised by most of the arrogant courtesans except one named Li (Jiang Mengjie), whom he takes a blade for after two belligerent customers refuse to pay for her service. Though it may seem that Chi acted out of love for Li, the truth is far more complicated – lost and disillusioned, Chi no longer has regard for his own life, content to live it out whether in humility or humiliation. So before Li or the brothel's owner can reward him, Chi leaves and heads for a nondescript village to join the boorish but good-hearted Mao (Tie Nan) as a sewage collector.

By this point, it is clear that Ah Chi is really the Third Master Hsieh Hsiao-feng that Yen seeks, who we will learn through subsequent flashbacks has tired of the blade and duty to the clan after realising how his conquests to be number one have only led to vicious cycles of killing and revenge. Certainly, Hsiao-feng's past will catch up with him – not through Yen though but rather by his jilted ex-lover Chiu-ti (Jiang Yiyan), whom he abandoned on the day of their arranged marriage that was supposed to unite the Hsieh and Mu Yung clans. While it may seem that Chiu-ti is driven by hurt, it turns out that she is torn between love and hate. Whereas, it is her pageboy Chu who only harbours the latter for Hsiao-feng, thus setting up an ultimate showdown which pits the Supreme Sword Manor against Chiu-ti's Seven Star Pool and the former's other arch-rival Purple Might. What about Yen? We won't spoil the surprise for you, but let's just say that Yen and Hsiao-feng leave the best for last – and for good reason, mind you.

Rather than just a modern-day rehash of its predecessor, 'Sword Master' takes a decidedly character-driven approach to its storytelling, emphasising each one's motivations and therefore their conflicts relative to each other. Hsiao-feng wants to escape from his birth legacy as well as his haunted past but realises that moving forward means facing up to the repercussions; Chiu-ti too is trapped by her past but her wounded pride binds her and Hsiao-feng in a vortex of hurt, hate and ultimately harm. Yen, on the other hand, learns to let go of his obsession for prestige, and his unexpected turn as protector, mentor and buddy to Hsiao-feng's Ah Chi is a refreshing break from cliché. Li may seem like the blander female role, but there is a nice touch of irony in her (as a prostitute no less) being the virtuous one next to the vindictive Chiu-ti. Across the board, the performances are competent, if slightly mediocre, so it is a relief the well-written characters nevertheless keeps us hooked.

Just as, if not more, captivating are the visuals, which are ravishing in their own right. To be sure, Yee isn't intending for realism here; instead, he aims for a self-aware visual artifice of sharp contrasts, switching effortlessly between studio sets and CGI to achieve an aesthetic befitting of mythology and legend. That same sensibility informs the action choreography by Yuen Bun and Dion Lin, staged with elegance and grace in every stroke. Each action sequence of balletic wirework is top-notch, enhanced for depth of field to give a thrillingly kinetic experience for viewers, especially those who have the privilege of catching it in 3D.

Like we said at the start, even though 'Sword Master' may seem like an odd addition to Yee's directorial oeuvre, it is very much a distinguished one, informed clearly by Yee's own love and flair for the 'wuxia' genre as well as that of his producer Tsui's. Fans of the genre will no doubt recognise Yee's reverence for its tropes, especially narratively, and hopefully come to appreciate his reinvention of the visuals through CGI and impressive wirework. Oh yes, there is both beauty and thrill in the action, and 'Sword Master' is one of the most beautiful martial arts extravaganzas you'll see in recent time.

3 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
Belongs to the so bad it's good camp. We're loving it!, 30 November 2016
6/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

While Sony's blockbuster slate has been pretty sluggish in the box office, their horror label Screen Gems has enjoyed better success from low-budgeted thrillers like Don't Breathe and two popular franchises, Resident Evil and Underworld -the former releasing its sixth and final chapter next January and Kate Beckinsale reprising her role as death dealer Selene for the fifth time in the latter.

Picking up after the events of Underworld: Awakening which sees the birth of Selene's hybrid daughter, Eve. Underworld: Blood Wars opens with Selene being haunted by her own kind and Lycans as both sides are out to seek the blood of Eve. The Vampires are losing the war as the Lycans clan led by Marius (Tobias Menzies from Game of Thrones) is getting stronger by the day. On the pretext of seeking assistance from Selene, the scheming Semira (Lara Pulver) approaches her help to train a new batch of death dealers. Unbeknownst to her, an internal rife is brewing and Selene's only ally happens to be David (Theo James from Divergent), the son of Vampire Elder, Thomas (Charles Dance from Games of Thrones yet again).

German-born cinematographer (White House Down) and TV director (Outlander, Criminal Minds) Anna Foerster takes over the directing duties for this instalment. It is frankly a thankless task to take over a franchise that hardly wins over the critics over the years but Foerster does a commendable job balancing the story and insane action sets. For the relatively brief running time, Foerster and her screenwriters Cory Goodman (The Last Witch Hunter) and Kyle Ward (Machete Kills) provides the various lead characters enough exposition and screen time for audiences to connect the dots at least for the first 45 minutes.

Besides being a family member to Selene, David is also on a journey to find out his true birth heritage that concerns his mysterious mother who left him after childbirth. The ambitious Semira and her aide cum lover Varga (Bradley James) plots to conquer the Vampire faction and Selene is constantly battling her own inner demons. On the Lycan side, the powerful Lycan leader Marius has a dark secret of his own. We are even introduced to the mysterious vampires residing in the cold Nordic coven. Honestly, you can't really blame the franchise for not trying to expand the Vampire mythos which in actual fact it actually does.

For Underworld fans who are hungry for more blood and gore, Underworld: Blood Wars has no lack of it. The last 45 minutes is an action- packed bloodletting orgy of sorts. Heads are sliced, countless shots are fired and it even boasts a WTF moment when two leads start firing at each other at close range. It's great to see some slick action choreography being displayed particularly the scene where Selene battles the transformed Marius on top of a frozen seabed.

Obviously because of time constraint and budget, CGI is favored over animatronic effects for the Lycans, which accounts for the weakest aspect of all. There is decent cinematography, excellent location shoot in Prague and rather impressive set designs. Best of all, Kate Beckinsale remains the draw in her ass-tight spandex. She seems not have aged a day since she first played Selene in the original 2004's Underworld, such that one wonders if she is really a death dealer in reality. For a dumb action fantasy, Underworld: Blood Wars certainly entertains, and obviously the franchise is very much opened to further developments.

12 out of 24 people found the following review useful:
It's no classic, but some tongue-in-cheek humour and a generally light-hearted tone makes this East-West mishmash more entertaining than you're probably expecting it to be, 18 November 2016
6/10

It may wear its tag of being the first significant 'French-Chinese co-production' proudly on its sleeve, but 'The Warrior's Gate' is really no more than a rehash of another East-meets-West action comedy that you may remember from about a decade ago called 'The Forbidden Kingdom'. Like the latter, it sends an American teenager back to ancient China where he learns to summon the warrior inside of him and teams up with a noble companion to save a kingdom from the clutches of an evil warlord. Like the latter, its humour is based on self-aware anachronism and its action of the traditional 'wushu' variety. And last but not least, like the latter, it lets its modern-day Caucasian male protagonist fall in love with a steely yet gentle female from that era, the inter-ethnic coupling not only to pander to the teenage demographic but also to ensure its appeal to audiences on both sides of the continent. And yet, if you're willing to put aside the obvious similarities, you're likely to find this reiteration more entertaining than you're expecting it to be.

Such faint praise however is also premised on little expectation at the start, which is a prerequisite for any manner of enjoyment. You should not, in the first instance, expect it to make much sense, for it gives scant regard to logic or coherence. As its hero Jack Bronson (newcomer Uriah Shelton) does, you should simply accept with little question that the English-speaking Chinese warrior Zhao (Mark Chao) in steel armour and straw hat who suddenly appears next to his bedside one evening has indeed travelled through a time portal in a waist-height drum-shaped chest he had received as a gift from the antiques dealer he helps out at after school. You should also accept the warrior's explanation that the young lady who shows up with him dressed like a princess (Ni Ni) is indeed one, and that she is on the run from some very terrible people. And while we're at it, you should accept that you are the hero they seek called 'The Black Knight' – because that is the name of your avatar in a similar video game – and not hesitate to journey back in time to fulfil your destiny. Like we said, disbelief is pointless if you intend to buy into its premise.

And so begins a fantasy adventure that sees Jack jump into the portal when said Princess Sulin is kidnapped by fierce-looking Mongol and Viking-like warriors and taken back to ancient China, where the barbarian named 'Arun the Cruel, the Horrible, the Terrible, the Miserable' (or 'Arun the Cruel' in short, played by Dave Bautista) has arranged their forced marriage in order to become Emperor. Jack thus teams up with Zhao to journey across the undulating lands to Arun's lair, with some timely help here and there from a trickster wizard named Wu (Francis Ng) who may or may not have something to do with Jack's current predicament. Theirs is a buddy trip, where encounters with a vile mountain spirit (Kara Wai) and a trio of wicked witches (think Macbeth) will foster the bond of brotherhood between them, such that Zhao will come to teach Jack the basics of kung fu and Jack will impress upon Zhao how the latter's life could be a happier place if he simply learnt to have fun from time to time.

It is no mystery whether Jack and Zhao will rescue Princess Sulin in time before her fateful marriage with Arun, or for that matter if Jack will eventually turn out to be the valiant 'Black Knight' that prophecy had foretold. Neither the climactic rescue on the morning of the forced union nor the ensuing one-on-one between Jack and Arun will raise your pulse – you've probably seen bigger, better and more exciting ones from China/ Hong Kong period war epics like this year's 'Call of Heroes'. Indeed, what's more notable is how director Matthias Hoene balances comedy and drama to keep the tone jocular without being satirical and thoughtful without being melodramatic. That is really more difficult than it looks, considering its far- fetched premise and the tendency of such East-West mishmashes to end up reinforcing the worst cultural stereotypes of each. It is these same sensitivities that inform the somewhat multiple endings, which suffice to say are specifically crafted in order not to land up forcing Jack and Sulin to choose his or her world over the other.

In the end, the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously is essentially why this potential misfire turns out a pleasant surprise by being mildly winning. Like we said at the start, we weren't expecting much from this rip-off of 'The Forbidden Kingdom', which was itself diverting but disposable entertainment. The same can be said of 'The Warrior's Gate', but at least not Hoene or its French co-writers (Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen) or its East-West cast deny. Heck, even the typical over-the-top villain such as Arun gets in on the fun with a running joke about his over-enthusiastic but dull right-hand man Brutus who keeps executing the wrong person. The young lead cast of Shelton, Chao and Ni Ni also have good chemistry between them, such that we root for the Shelton and Chao as well as Shelton and Ni Ni as buddies and lovers respectively from two different eras. As long as you keep your expectations right, you won't end up disappointed, which is pretty much already an accomplishment for a movie like this that you're probably thinking will bomb.


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